It's Only Rock-and-Roll
Rock music plays an important part in Shepard's plays as well as in his general sense of aesthetics. In an often-cited passage from Hawk Moon called "Rip It Up", there is this proclamation of the primacy of rock music over all other art:
...Rock and Roll made movies theatre books painting and art go out the window none of it stands a chance against The Who The Stones and old Yardbirds Credence Traffic The Velvet Underground Janis and Jimi and on and on..." (p. 55)
This, taken with Shepard's statement that his writing process is very much like working with music, points Shepard's rock-and-roll aesthetics. He is a playwright, but his preferred profession, at least in the early 1970's, was that of "rock and roll star." (Shewey, p.47) Not satisfied with the traditional perception of the dramatist as a disciplined artist working within one medium, Shepard has infused his work with a rock-and-roll-inspired energy and iconoclasm.
Shepard played drums for the experimental band, the Holy Modal Rounders, in the 1960's. The Rounders took traditional country blues music, such as the work of Charlie Poole, and performed it in an improvisational, often psychedelic manner. This collaboration, in which Shepard had a hand shaping the highly theatrical live performances, proved to be nothing more than a cult phenomenon in Greenwich Village, yet the essential experiment seems to have had an impact on Shepard. What the band attempted to do was to reclaim traditional music and traditional themes and to present them in thoroughly avante-garde ways. This spirit of artistic daring fed much of Shepard's early plays, which frequently made use of rock bands on stage. Indeed, the very act of mixing traditional, rural music with psychedelic, urban rock-and-roll appears to be a kind of template for the playwright's later approach to his career and to his art. Shepard proves to be adept at borrowing and mixing influences, styles, and genres-- there is no better expression of this ambitious miscegenation than the phrase "rock-and-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth." And since the early seventies, Shepard has not only written plays but split his time between acting in, directing, and writing films, as if no one medium could satisfy and contain his far-ranging creativity.
Shepard with Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac's gravein Lowell, Massachusetts
In the Autumn of 1975, Shepard was invited to tour with Bob Dylan and his Rolling Thunder Revue, a large band and entourage that included Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, among many others. Shepard's appointed role was to write scenes and dialogue for a film to be made along the way, though the film was never produced. The opportunity provided Shepard, a long-time fan and student of the cult of Dylan, the rare, even bizarre, experience of writing fictional scenes in which the charismatic Dylan was to act. The tour proved to be far too chaotic for the methodical production of a film, but Shepard published, in 1987, a collection of splintered impressions of the experience. This book, titled Rolling Thunder Logbook, gives us a clear indication of Shepard's fascination with the rock star and self-made myth of Bob Dylan. Entries such as "Big Stakes" verge on adulation:
Myth is a powerful medium because it talks to the emotions and not to the head. It moves us into an area of mystery. Some myths are poisonous to believe in, but others have the capacity for changing something inside us, even if it's only for a minute or two. Dylan creates a mythic atmosphere out of the land around us. The land we walk on every day and never see until someone shows it to us." (p.62)
This sense of the mythic is not confined to the art, but extends to the artist's role as a public figure. In Shepard's assertion that a figure like Dylan can change his audience, even "move us into an area of mystery," he locates the potential magic of art. Whether it is rock music, movies, or plays, Shepard seems to say, art can achieve the level of myth. And Dylan is living proof; a truly mythical artist has such power. In this construct, the celebrity and the art support each other and lend a degree of authenticity to the other.
Later in the Rolling Thunder Logbook, Shepard reflects on Dylan's meaning as a cultural figure:
Dylan has invented himself. He's made himself up from scratch. That is, from the things he had around him and inside him. Dylan is an invention of his own mind. The point isn't to figure him out but to take him in. He gets into you anyway, so why not just take him in? He's not the first one to have invented himself, but he's the first one to have invented Dylan... (p. 100)
Likewise, Shepard has invented-- and continues to reinvent-- himself. The man born Samuel Shepard Rogers VII and called "Steve" through his childhood to distinguish him from his father (DeRose, p.2) has created several different personae, however, perhaps with the intention of lending yet greater originality to his creation. The one constant in all of this masking and molting, though, has been Shepard's apparent ambivalence towards what he has created, as if the illusion he has wrought can either never fully sustain him or possibly threaten to suffocate him under its restrictions.
It is the illusion of the artist's mythical persona which most interests Shepard in his description of Dylan's appearance on stage wearing a Bob Dylan mask of his actual face:
Tonight Dylan appears in a rubber Dylan mask he'd picked up on 42nd Street. The crowd is stupefied. A kind of panic-stricken hush falls over the place. "Has he had another accident? Plastic surgery?" Or is this some kind of mammoth hoax? An imposter! The voice sounds the same. If it is a replacement, he's doing a good job. He goes through three or four songs with the thing on, then reaches for the harmonica. He tries to play it through the mask but it won't work, so he rips it off and throws it back into the floodlights. There he is in the flesh and blood! The real thing! A face-lift supreme! It's a frightening act even if it's not calculated for those reasons. The audience is totally bewildered and still wondering if this is actually him or not. (p.114)
Dylan could not have chosen a more empathetic writer for his doomed film project than Shepard: he shares Dylan's narcissistic fascination with image and the self-created myth. In the passage above, Dylan delights in presenting his audience with a false image, one which confounds expectations and has them wondering whether they are seeing something authentic or a dime-store fake. It is a moment of extreme self-consciousness and an act which suggests that Dylan is able to play into and off of his own public persona. And Shepard is watching with rapt attention, taking notes. The larger-than-life mythos of rock music informs Shepard's most passionate compulsions-- to act and to be seen-- , yet there remains a lingering question of authenticity, as if Shepard knows that it doesn't really matter whether Dylan takes off the mask or not. The human face itself (of Dylan, James Dean, or even Shepard), reproduced endlessly-- as in a Warhol series-- is no different from a mask.
Dylan admiring his mask
1987 saw the publication of another curious Shepard-Dylan encounter: a one-act play, "as it really happened" and based, apparently, on a visit Shepard made to Dylan's home in California. The piece appeared in Esquire (July, 1987) and might be mistaken by that magazine's readers for an interview. But it is a play, complete with stage directions. It is as eerie a work as anything Shepard has ever written, unsettling in its struggle to make "SAM," described as "a tall, skinny guy dressed in jeans and a T-shirt," a character to be manipulated by the playwright like any other fiction. (p.59) Dramaturgy, after all, affords the playwright the God-like power to control actors-- real, flesh-and-blood human beings-- and to put words in their mouths, to give them life on a stage of the playwright's design. Here, Shepard splits himself into both actor and playwright before our eyes; he is both marionette and omnipotent presence.
The "interview" ranges from topics of mundane personal business to James Dean's death to Hank Williams. It is nonchalant, rambling dialogue, and the reader begins to hear the ring of both men's voices, yet there is something decidedly artificial about it. There is a haunting sense that this is more Beckett than Barbara Walters. Somewhat ironically, the play is titled "True Dylan."
But "True Dylan"-- like True West, Cowboy Mouth, or any other of Shepard's works-- is more about Shepard than anything else. The entirety of the "play" may be seen as a highly personal fiction. When "BOB" wonders whether he might not be able to answer "SAM"'s questions, SAM responds, "Make it up." (p. 60) Likewise, when SAM is unable, mysteriously, to find the interview on the tape recorder he brought, BOB reassures him that he, too, can simply "Make it up." (p. 66) It is a self-consciously unstable and coy document, and within it, BOB and SAM discuss other works in which truth and authenticity are the central questions.
There is, for example, an interesting exchange in which SAM quizzes BOB about his fascination with traditional country music:
SAM: At that time were you fishin' around for a form?
BOB: Well, you can't catch fish 'les you trow de line, mon.
SAM: This is true.
BOB: Naw, I've always been real content with the old forms. I know
my place by now.
SAM: So you feel you know who you are?
BOB: Well, you always know who you are. I just don't know who I'm
gonna become." (p.64)
Taken on one level, this could be seen as an insight into the character of Bob Dylan. As a kind of mentor and precursor, Dylan here observes that you've got to try different styles and modes-- or roles and masks-- before you understand who you are, to which SAM responds with the absolute certainty of experience, "This is true." The process, is however, unending; the experimentation is not to end and the artist is never to know who he is "gonna become."
Also, early on, BOB mentions that he has recently visited the site of James Dean's fatal car crash, a place he describes as "as powerful as the place where he lived." (p.60) Further, BOB admits that he initially went to New York City only because "James Dean had been there." (p.62) Twice the sound of a car crashing is heard off-stage (pp. 60, 68), underlining the imposing presence of the legendary James Dean, a presence which is mystically potent in that these two men clearly care a great deal for his memory. The crash sound also conjures up recollections of Dylan's near-fatal motorcycle in 1966 as well as Shepard's own memorable vignette about an actor in a motorcycle crash.
BOB and SAM are not uncritical, however; they probe at the question of the authenticity of Dean's mythos. They reminisce about a scene from Giant in which James Dean seemed to them a little off:
BOB: Well, I never did like that scene. Always felt like there was
somethin' phony about it. Didn't quite ring true. Always bothered
me. Like there was a lie hiding in there somewhere, but I couldn't
quite put my finger on it.
SAM: Yeah, I never did either. You mean where he's drunk and
alone in the convention hall or whatever it was?
BOB: Yeah. You know why that was? Why it felt phony?
SAM: The makeup. All that gray in his hair?
BOB: NO, no. I wish it was the makeup. Turns out Nick Adams, an
actor at that time, who was a friend of James Dean's, he
overdubbed that speech because James Dean had died by that time.
SAM: Is that right?
BOB: Yeah. And that makes perfect sense because that don't ring
true. The end of that movie. But that's what I mean-- the lie and
the truth, like that." (p.68)
Here the two ferret out a lie "hiding in there somewhere," but later they locate the source of Dean's greatness:
BOB: Well, why do you suppose-- I mean what was it that he did
that was so different? For instance, in that scene with the bullets.
What made that scene so incredible?
SAM: It was a pure kind of expression.
BOB: Of what?
SAM: Of an emotion. But it went beyond the emotion into another
territory. Like most actors in that scene would express nothing but
self-pity, but he put across a true remorse.
SAM: Yeah. For mankind. A pity for us all. This wasted life. This
dumb death of an innocent kid. The death of an innocent." (p.68)
This is a crucial moment in Shepard's work. He gives us unstable simulacra of himself and Dylan, men whose faces are so well known that they have become icons. But here they talk about themselves, or Shepard talks about himself, through their apparent concern for James Dean. SAM's assertion is that, despite the inherent danger of artificiality in the movies (i.e., the stand-in for Dean's voice), James Dean was able to do something totally real, or even better than merely real: he was able to imbue the faulty form with a kind of magic that ennobles us all. Dean, argues SAM, was so great because he was able to "put across" truth through a medium which too often lies, and this is perhaps our greatest clue as to Shepard's fascination with the film industry: authenticity exists in the audience's response. Specifically, when the audience sees itself (its pathos, its despair) in a character on screen, it processes the experience as "real."